Was English Football Really Better in the 90s? Let's Decide
A nostalgic analysis of then versus now.
Eric Cantona enjoying himself in the 90s
It’s possible that we're currently enjoying a mini-golden age of football. We’ve just had a totally unshit – in fact, totally entertaining – World Cup, we have the two probable greatest players who've ever lived, and there’s a level of competition in England's top flight that hasn’t really been seen since it were possible for Nottingham Forest to win the league. At the same time, there is a sense that elite English football may have arrived at the outer limits of its own popularity – how many more airtime minutes can it possibly suck up? How many more morning shifts can transfer gossip hijack before productivity in this country grinds to a halt? And how much more Twitter abuse can Richard Keys take?
In order to find out if we really do have it that great, I decided to compare things to the last small golden age we passed through and now look back upon wistfully. The age of Cantona, Bergkamp, Zola and Le Tissier. The Premiership, not the Premier League, the last time in which you could still throw bog roll on the pitch without getting an all-competitions UEFA ban. The 90s.
The Football Itself
In 1993, we had to watch Steve Talboys, Ian Olney and Jason Dozzell – one of the best things we can say about football now is that we do not have to watch Steve Talboys, Ian Olney and Jason Dozzell. Because of a new diet – courtesy of Arsene Wenger, who invented carrots in 1996 – and the increased number of foreigners in the game, today's players are fitter than ever before. Early evidence for this trend can be found in this video of the 1995-96 Aston Villa squad revealing their favourite drinks, which reaches its peak with a face-off between the club's Australian and English goalkeepers: Mark "I love Ribena" Bosnich and Nigel "pint of bitter and a double Bacardi chaser, please" Spink. Though admittedly Spink never pulled a gun on his dad after a four-day coke binge, so maybe there's something to be said for keeping some slack in the reins, eh?
What's undeniable is that from 1993 to 1999, English football made a huge leap in quality. The return to European competition after the Heysel ban meant that British teams could no longer pretend that a diving header was the peak of technical sophistication, and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, centre-halves were chipping people. The money thrown at the clubs from Sky also allowed teams to not just buy exciting foreign players, like Faustino Asprilla and Jaap Stam, but also cheap European Union players to replace the dreck at the bottom. Great news for the Premiership's skyrocketing global fanbase, bad luck for Nigel Quashie.
Cantona inspired Manchester United’s young players to fulfil their potential, and the rivalry between United and Arsenal, the greatest rivalry the Sky era has seen, spurred each side on to almost relentless excellence throughout the 1998-99 season. You could make the case that the dominance of those two sides in that period is what made the Premier League what it is today: a bunch of hostile gunboats floating around in a dirty, iridescent ocean of oil money. Whatever the cause, football in England's top division has remained thrillingly direct – none of this Barcelona nonsense of suffocating your opponent of the will to live; the best English sides have always been surgically accurate counter-attackers, orchestrated by the flair, wit and invention of brilliant number 10s – the 90s had Bergkamp, Cantona, Zola; today we have Coutinho, Silva, Hazard.
As the quality of football has improved, so the levels of violence have dropped. In 1999, it wasn’t gone entirely – we still had Ben Thatcher – but in the early years of the Premiership there was some outstanding brutality. While it probably is better that these days, young souls who've given up their childhoods to play football are less at risk of being Neil Ruddocked into retirement at 22, in practice, the visceral thrill of genuine danger has disappeared. The body shape of players has changed – back then, they were heavy-set, able to withstand greater force, with the odd exception, like David Busst's leg. Now, they are interchangeable whippets, identical spray-tanned microchips fitting into a great, incomprehensible football computer. They are no longer gladiatorial, they are Olympian, but as long as we have Jonjo Shelvey, we have hope. Because watching Jonjo Shelvey play football will never get boring.
The evolution of fans has largely been a disaster. The Premiership was, at its inception, a middle-class experience, but it at least had the muscle memory of a time before the sport was herded towards high-street respectability. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being middle class of course, but there’s something horrible about watching your friend posh himself up to impress his new colleagues. And that’s elite English football today: A pretentious, nouveau-riche snob pretending it doesn’t know its old mates any more. Of course, now the middle classes are watching the Qataris nick this social climber of sports, they’re finding out how the rest of the country must have felt back when Jack Walker and Marco Boogers were stealing their "people's game" away from them.
Fans aren’t really all that racist any more, and that’s a good thing. Back in 1993 you could still get shit for having an Irish accent in some stands in London, but then the Kick It Out Campaign was established as society accepted that being racist was now something you had to not be, or at least pretend not to be. These days there’s nothing that gets fans so irate as the suggestion that their club, themselves or their players could be racist. Especially when they are.
Liverpool and Chelsea are the prime Premier League candidates, as they booed Patrice Evra and Anton Ferdinand for being racially abused. What this shows is not necessarily that football is more or less racist, but how far fans debase themselves to defend their clubs. Liverpool and Arsenal are particularly sensitive to criticism, but the general trend is a move away from fans to fanboys. Clubs' fortunes are entangled with the average fan's sense of self-worth too intimately for them to accept criticism. My club is not racist – your players lied.
Fans now are startlingly, embarrassingly infantile. They bring sheets of paper with messages – always shit messages – to be photographed, mistaking the joy of darts for something that can be replicated in Kensington. Obviously, football fans were never a cohort of stoic, upstanding role models. They just weren’t these kinds of cocks.
In 1993, football was already becoming expensive and slightly exclusive. The biggest resulting change is the decline of chanting. In the past, chanting was expected. Now, the football fan is a theatregoer, maybe even a flaneur. Don’t sing, sit down, shut up and watch. Fly into Heathrow, go to Harrods and turn up at half time. But for all the sanitised atmosphere, the away fans in the Premier League still impress. They know their history, they protest, they sing with gay abandon and largely, they understand what’s what. Things are obviously less moody – policing, ticket prices and CCTV has seen to that – but away trips remain one of the few experiences that many fans enjoy.
There are many differences between players now and then, but it all comes down to the same thing in the end. The 90s were a time of upheaval and revolution, and something that had always gone with the game since it found its proletarian roots in England began to disappear. For some, it was the welcome removal of an archaic barrier to real, professional athletes and fast-paced football in this country. But it could also be seen as the greatest act of cultural vandalism ever inflicted on the game, or indeed perhaps Britain as a whole. Yes: since the 90s, alcohol has all but disappeared from football – openly, at least.
And maybe that’s why something’s been lost on the pitch, too. The generally slower pace of the game produced by hangovers allowed people like Matt Le Tissier to exist, who would have to move to St Mirren to get a game now. It allowed random foreigners to come in and instantly look like world-class players, and indeed Cantona, Juninho and Zola were soon beating English defenders in a very similar style to a sober man fighting a drunk one, or at least running around him in circles really quickly. Nearly every team used to have a player like this, but now the closest thing we have is probably Hatem Ben Arfa, growing fat in Newcastle’s stiffs.
In some ways this is a good thing, but something’s been lost too since the early-to-mid 90s, the last ride of the alkies. Manchester United may have lost out on a few titles because Bryan Robson’s teammates weren’t as capable of drinking 20 pints the night before a game as he was, but it produced a team of likeable heroes. It made for a deeper connection, and they fought in derbies still hungover the next day. They were, simply, supermen.
England used to love a tragic, alcoholic anti-hero who literally pissed away his talent, from Best to Gascoigne. Now they call talkSPORT in a rage about Jack Wilshere smoking. Rooney has squandered much of his talent through not caring, but he’s gained no additional sympathy out of it, just hatred. Even the boozing itself, when it happens, has become boring – all crap Vegas holidays and 12-star Dubai hotels with the wife.
Nowadays, it’s rich men wearing invisible handcuffs, and that’s a shame. It’s hard to think of someone as a hero when you know they spend half their lives playing computer games and drinking Lucazade. But still, as much as we tolerate the loss in character for better football, was it really worth it?
One of the other big changes of the 90s was, of course, Sky Sports. Which was a great unformed beast back when it started – offering huge amounts of a very mediocre product presented by humans it’d take half a decade to stop despising. But, as big as Sky seemed back then, it was nothing compared to what it started. In its first five years, the network showed 60 games. Last year alone it was 138 and next season, it will be more.
Another weird thing that's happened is that we also have cable club TV stations, one of the most truly surreal forms of entertainment around. Tuning in to MUTV during the latter-period Ferguson or Moyes eras was what Soviet TV must have been like in the late 80s, everybody existing in a bubble of terrified delusion, with doubters being vanished to some astroturfed gulag to report on the under-13 Bs.
These days, the biggest change on telly, however, has been its enmeshment with Twitter. Once upon a time, pundits were unquestioned kings, safely hidden in 12-inch boxes across the nation. The worst that could ever happen would be a couple of nasty chants if they ever had the misfortune of having to present from one of those weird pitchside podia. Unfortunately, because media and sports cross over at stupidity’s apex, this just meant they were being paid huge amounts without anyone ever being able to point out to them how stupid they were. Once Twitter came along – coupled with a new type of non-drunk, intelligent former player pundit, as typified by Gary Neville – the old guard started to look stupid. These days even fucking Alan Shearer does his homework for fear of being sacked, and sent back to the long, lonely golf course that is the footballing afterlife.
There's also been a huge decline in the amount of genuine access that journalists are allowed to clubs. Even humble local 'papers, those outlets supposedly privy to the inner sanctum of the club – or at least the local barroom whispers surrounding it – have been forced to sell out to the Buzzfeedification of all media, posting solitary photos from Luke Shaw's instagram and calling it "news". Clubs are happy to reciprocate here, launching ever-lamer social media stunts and shit kit launch videos. Nobody is interested in precisely what minor variation of red and white stripes Sunderland will be wearing this year. I can't even be bothered to look up who their fucking kitmaker is.
Yet perhaps the biggest problem with the unwieldy size of football coverage, and its pervasion into all forms of media – its coverage is by and large great, but often the Guardian seems to consist of little else – is that it's become "something for everyone". British cultural anomaly David Schneider is probably the worst example here, inserting years-old Heskey gags into awful by-the-numbers tweeting, but something strange is going on in actual papers. For some reason, the average right-wing columnist in the Times or the Telegraph seems to have managed to convince their editor to let them spend half their job writing about football, so you go onto Dan Hodges or Danny Finkelstein's author page and "How will Wayne Rooney fit into Louis van Gaal's 3-5-2?" is just beneath "Why Israel needs to continue its assault on Gaza." It's very unsettling.
Since the 90s, it’s all changed. Yes, everything we’ve lost has been replaced in the name of progress, but it’s the same sort of progress you currently witness in Boris Johnson’s London: soulless, tasteful, delicious, exclusive, branded and expensive. Football stadiums have become places you visit, not places you live – while football itself has become the most constant, and most easily consumed facet of our lives. Such is the constant electrical storm of opinion and noise around the game that even the most ardent season ticket holder is now an armchair fan; disbelieving what their own eyes tell them each week in favour of the loudest and most obnoxious media narrative.
Fortunately, there is one piece of compensation for those who still pine for the heady days of the Premiership early years. If you like your footballers to get in fights in pubs at the weekend, your away trips to be bloody gauntlets, and your teams to consist of one genius and ten plodders – and, crucially, you can suspend your disbelief – you only need to look north of the border, to Scotland. Some people say the football died up there. I say it died to be born again. Looking at its current state, I think they’ll be about ready to level out back into 1993-standard in a season or two. Long may it stay there.
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